Sunday, 14 March 2021

Poland to Finland: The plan

After one year of Corona restrictions many countries are still (or again) closed to tourists, my original plan to hike in the US went down the drain. In spring 2021 there is not much choice of hiking destinations, especially if you don't want to fly. I still have two "unfinished" European traverses so it was obvious for me to pursue one of them - and the choice was easy: Last year I had started in Görlitz at the German-Polish border and had hiked South to Italy. This year I will start there again and go North through Poland, all three Baltic states and Finnland up the Finnish-Swedish border at the Gulf of Bothnia. The route is already planned out because I had intended to go there in 2020, but then had changed to Italy instead. 

In this still unstable Corona situation Poland is a great choice: It borders Germany and in an emergency I can easily get back by train. More important still: Poland has currently very few restrictions for travellers. I don't need a Corona test to enter, even museums and hotels are open - and I will need accommodation at the beginning of my trip because now in March it is still bitterly cold! But most important: I have never hiked long-distance in Poland before, only short sections in the Tatras. 

When I stumbled across a Polish Triple Crowner on the internet I contacted her - and Agnieska aka Zebra helped me to find a better route than my own concoction. I will now hike on a mixture of pilgrimage trails, the European long-distance trail E11 and self-designed routes. 

If I will be allowed to enter Lithuania by the time I get there, I will continue on the Camino Lituano, followed by the Camino Latvia and the Coastal Trail in Latvia and a long-distance trail in Estonia.

In Finland I'll follow the E6 which is now a project of Finnish hiker Matti who offered a wealth of route suggestions and advice.

The entire route is about 3500 km long and I'll begin with 1,200 km through Poland. 

I will start as soon as the weather improves and hope to be able to succeed in hiking the entire route - but this year a lot can go wrong or cause changes. 


Saturday, 13 March 2021

Sentiero Italia and E1 in Italy: Conclusion and tipps

Two long-distance trails are (theoretically) traversing the length of Italy: Sentiero Italy with a total of almost 7,000 km is spanning the entire alpine range, the length of Italy in several variants plus Sicily and Sardinia and is maintained by CAI. The E1 on the other hand shortcuts the alpine range by traversing the Po Valley, has no variants and currently ends in Fortino, although there is already E1 trail in Sicily. It is maintained by the FIE. Both trails use existing paths and often run parallel or close to each other. Where they use popular trails like the Alta Via dei Monti Ligurii or the Grande Escursione Appenninica they are well marked, where they are "stand-alone" their state ranges from brand new fabulous trail to non-existant. 

Generally speaking it is European idiocy that there are two separate long-distance trails in Italy and none is "finished" or even close to finished. Instead of joining forces the CAI and FIE are pursuing different plans just because of one fact: Only the FIE is a member of the European Ramblers' Association which organanzises the European long-distance trails. Sentiero Italia cannot be part of the European network because CAI is not a member of the head organization. 

The Sentiero Italia has already been founded in the 90s but fallen into decay. Only since 2018 the CAI has been reviving it. But instead of now putting all the efforts into really "finishing" the Sentiero Italia the CAI has now announced that it will create a new trail linking all the National Parks in the country. With limited resources I am afraid that this fact will threaten the fragil state of the Sentiero Italia again. 

Generally speaking I found the E1 far less developed than the Sentiero Italia. I would not recommend the E1 because it is impossible to thruhike it in Italy! The E1 just does not exist in places and has never existed there other than on paper. One example: At one place the E1 is supposed to cross a broad fast flowing river where there is no bridge or ferry! Only the FIE knows why they routed the trail there ... To find an E1 marker in the mountains is also a rare occasion whereas the Sentiero Italia is almost 90% more or less marked - which does not mean you can hike it there. Often the trail keeper has been the last person through here - sometimes several years ago judging from the state of overgrownness ...

That being said I want to answer the two questions I always ask myself after a long hike: Did I like this trip? Yes, absolutely! This is one of the most stunning hikes of my entire hiking career. I don't know of any other European trail that is so breathtakingly beautiful over such a long distance! For me personally Sentiero Italia is the "sexiest" trail in Europa at the moment. It has everything a thruhikers loves: Incredible scenery, plenty of adventure and a suitable length for a thruhike. It can definitely rival the long US trails, in fact with Corona restrictions and permit systems / overcrowding on the PCT and AT I would rather hike here in Italy than tackling the US trails. 

But would I recommend it to a friend? That really depends on the friend's experience and expectations. To make it very clear: The Sentiero Italia is not for everyone! You need plenty of experience in navigation, lots of perseverance and sometimes a machete to successfully hike it. (And you will have a problem if you are afraid of dogs ...) I have hiked on wonderful old cobblestone paths - but also had the worst bushwhacks possibly. You will encounter more cows, sheep, horses and dogs than people. In fact I have not met any other thruhiker on the entire trail. There is no trail community whatsoever and your only source of information is the CAI website in Italian. Forget getting any support from them: They did not even bother to answer my emails ...
At least CAI is improving the trail constantly: Always check with their (very slow) Italian-only website if a section has recently been rerouted! A group of young Italian hikers have founded an organization called Vasentiero and they are hiking the trail each summer, also working on a digital guide - so far Italian only. But neither CAI nor Vasentiero tackle one of the biggest obstacles for a thruhiker: Water!

The good new is that there is enough water, at least for thruhiker standards. You don't have to carry more than for one day - if you knew where the water sources are!!!! And that is the biggest problem: OSM maps don't show most of the sources and the ones that are shown can often be dry or turned off. Unfortunately neither CAI nor Vasentiero mention water sources on their website probably assuming that no one thruhikes the trail wild camping style. But even if you stayed in paid accommodation every night it would great to know where each section's water sources are. One good thing is that almost every little village has a public water fountain and on most mountain passes there is a guesthouse, mostly with accessible water taps. 

Another good news is about wild camping: Of course, like in most European countries it is illegal in Italy, but the trail runs so remote that finding a discreet spot out of sight is dead easy! And due to the rural exodus there is hardly anyone around who could discover you anyways ... My favourite were the abandoned dry wall terraces and the platforms for coal piles left by charcoal burner decades ago. 
Although there are wolves and even bears in Italy I don't think they are a threat to humans: They are too shy! Dogs can be a nuisance, but they are only protective to their herds. If you keep a distance they pose no danger. 
Technically the trail poses no real difficulty either, but if you suffer from vertigo you might be reluctant to traverse some knife edge ridges. 

One last word: If you are more interested in culture than nature I would rather recommend the Way of St. Francis, the Sentiero Italia avoids towns and civilisation. 

Germany to Italy: Aspromonte National Park and the end

When I had planned this trip I had imagined Southern Italy would be a dry and barren place and I was really worried about finding enough water. This turned out to be totally wrong! The last of many National Parks along this route looked like the Black Forest, there was water everywhere (unfortunately also in form of rain) and it was foggy most of the time. On my last day I even came through a ski resort!!! It was also much colder than expected. As much as I liked my hike through Italy it was time to go home now. Only 10 hours of delight in combination with the low temperatures made that very clear.

The last 100 km were a race against time. Calabria was about the only Italian region not in look down. I had already skipped my plan to continue hiking through Sicily - I now wanted to finish in Reggion Calabria at the coast, enjoy one last rest day at the beach and then go home. It was the closest timing of any hike I have ever done.

On my last full hiking day I was descending from the mountains and the fog. It was the day after the US election and I checked my smartphone several times to find out the result. I could already see the Aetna and the coast of Sicily when I read a frightening notice: Calabria was to go into hard lockdown the next day! In disbelief I called a German follower who lives in Calabria: Yes, she had heard it, too - but this is Italy! Nothing is decided yet, just hike on, was her advice. It was a fantastic last day with incredible views of the coast. When I finally reached Reggio Calabria the sun was already setting and I headed straight to my pre booked hotel. Tomorrow was my rest day and I could take the official finish photo then.

This is when this follower sent me an SMS: The government is making it official - tomorrow Calabria is in lockdown. All my plans of relaxing at the beach went down the drain. I barely made it to the beach where I took some last selfies as finish photos before heading to my hotel. The owner was all upset because no one know the exact look down regulations. I was prepared to leave that very night after a shower. The owner spoke great English and was incredibly helpful: She called the police and the train station to inquire about the situation. Yes, trains were still running on regular schedule tomorrow and tourists were allowed to leave. But no celebration menu for me: All the restaurants were closed. I could not even find a laundromat to wash my clothes ...

I had to take three different trains to get from Reggio Calabria to Berlin and it took me 34 hours. Every single train was delayed, but I was incredibly happy when I crossed the border into Germany. I was already sitting in the Berlin metro when another follower sent me a message: "Hope you are back in Germany already. From tomorrow on Calabria is considered a high risk area and you must go into 10 day quarantine." But luckily I had arrived before and did not have to quarantine ... My relief and thankfulness to have finished my hike AND made it back in time was overwhelming!  

Friday, 12 March 2021

Germany to Italy: Cosenza to Aspromente National Park

I had been very doubtful whether it was a good idea to continue despite rising Corona numbers, even on my way to the train station in Cosenza I made some last minute calls to friends back in Germany to discuss the topic. But like a confirmation of my decision to hike on I found all the little things in shops that had been missing: I had managed to loose all five bandanas I had bought four months ago in Ulm and here I found a new (and last one for this trip) plus a mini size tube of tooth paste. Then off I went to Sila National Park that looked a lot more like Germany than Southern Italy. It was very windy up on the mountain tops but I found a lovely sheltered campsite with 4G cell phone reception! 

Next evening I had more problems: Right before sunset all trail markers disappeared and my GPS brought me to a river crossing in a meadow exactly when it started to rain. The cows watched me gleefully when I took off my shoes and socks to ford the river. It took me a while to find a decent spot and had to put in ear plugs because a dog was barking all night long on a nearby farm.

I had camped close to Lago Ampollino and everything was frozen over in the morning - but what a beautiful sunrise over the lake! Sila National Park turned out to be cow heaven with huge meadows. Cows here have scary long horns but the completely ignored me. I still kept a distance when I sat down for lunch and drying my frozen over tent. 

I hiked three days across Sila encountering free range horses and a modern sanctuary dedicated to Mary - and of course it started to rain again. I fled into a hotel where I was delighted to find out that the restaurant was closed to the public but open for guests! I had wonderful pasta, a glass of wine and a chat with the friendly owner who spoke fluent Spanish because he had worked on Mallorca before.

He even gave me all the leftovers from the breakfast buffet in the morning and an umbrella. I definitely needed the last one because it continued to rain. That day turned out to be one of the worst of the entire trip. Sentiero Italia brought me to a huge wind park where nobody had been hiking through for several years! The trail was completely overgrown, trees had fallen onto it and worst: Along a steep sandy slope it had almost completely eroded away. After climbing over dozens of blow downs and under blackberry bushes I had to realize that maybe mountain goats could safely pass this slope but definitely me. I had to turn around, but unfortunately my map told me that the only way around would involve a 30 km detour on roads ... To make things even more frustrating I could see the trail markers on the slope above me! Because the sun was already setting I needed a camp site quickly - and that could only be found on top of the ridge next to the windpark. With courage born of despair and decided to climb up through a jungle of blow downs and black berries. 

I managed to get up to the ridge right before it got completely dark and even found a campsite! I was so exhausted that I fell asleep quickly despite the noisy rotors in the wind park. But this little adventure had an aftermath next morning: I took me more than an hour to operate all the spikes and thorns out of my limbs ...
Luckily no overgrown trail the next day, but plenty of kaki and pomegrate trees! And this sheep dogs were quite tame and only guarding their herd. 
I indulged in another hotel room in San Bruno where I suddenly missed my passport in the evening. I remembered having shown it at check in, but had the owner handed it back to me or had I lost it? I was lucky: The owner had kept it overnight - in an unlocked drawer in the unlocked hotel reception ...

Wednesday, 10 March 2021

Germany to Italy: Morano Calabro to Cosenza

Pollino National Park

Despite the bad weather I still got to see a bit of Pollino National Park when I resumed my hike. The mountains mainly serve as meadows and despite the low temperatures plenty of cows and horses were still out. When I approached this meadow I could see dozens of cows peacefully grazing. Unsuspectingly I came closer - when all of sudden the sheep dogs must have woken up and ran towards me. Normally it helps to pick up a rock and threaten to throw it but alas - there was no rock whatsoever in the grass, only cow pats. And believe it or not: I picked up a dry cow pat, threw it towards the dogs - and it worked! They let me pass and kept a distance! 

View of Paola
I hiked several more days in rainy weather before the sun came out again. The Sentiero Italia had now brought me within sight of the sea! When I discovered that the famous pilgrimage site of Paola is located only 4 kilometers away from the trail I wanted to pay it a visit. Unfortunately I had somehow overlooked that these 4 kilometers involved a 1,000 meter elevation loss that I would have to climb up again next day. Still this view of Paola and the sea was worth the effort!

Back on trail I was woken up very early in the morning by mushroom pickers! Way before sunrise they drive up into the mountains and look for "porcini". I don't think they would have bothered me but I was not keen on answering curious questions first thing in the morning.

The Sentiero follows a train line around the town of Cosenza. I was a bit surprised to see that on the map but assumed that the line was not active any more so that hikers could walk there. Luckily I checked to schedules and found out that two trains run here per hour! And to make things worse the train line passes several narrow bridges and tunnels. Walking here is basically suicide and I don't understand why the CAI put their route here! Because I did not want to kill myself I took the train and spent one night in Cosenza.

Cosenza is a hilltop town with very little parking. The owners of my accommodation therefore offer E-bikes for their guests. Great chance for me because I wanted to do a last shopping trip to Decathlon and Lidl, both way out of town. But this was my first time ever on an E-bike in an unknown Italian city with no bike paths and almost flat tires. I managed - but was very happy when I brought myself and the bike back in one piece. 

I was having breakfast when I saw the Naples Corona riots on TV. More and more Italian regions were going into lockdown. "Don't worry, this will not happen here in Calabria", told me the owner. She was wrong in the end ...

Germany to Italy: Piaggine to Morano Calabro

Next stop for me was the town of Lagonegro where a new pair of shoes was waiting for me in the post office. Post offices are not an efficient affair in Germany but Italy in Corona times was ten times worse. I had to wait half an hour and fill out a form just to collect my package. But I also had the best pasta in a local ristorante for just 4 Euro before hitting the trail again.

I was now only on the Sentiero Italia, the E1 officially ends here - and inofficially it never existed before. I had trouble again finding a campsite because there were only endless meadows, even without cattle it is difficult to camp in the open due to condensation which got really bad now in fall. I had to search way into darkness to find a spot under a lone tree. 

In Latronico I saw a whole holiday apartment for just 23 Euro and could not resist. And the Pizza Particolare with pumpkin cream and smoked cheese in the local pizza parlor was a real culinary delight!

My campsite on the meadow
Despite the bad weather I had to press on into Pollino National Park. By now I was really worried about the rest of my trip. It was getting colder and colder and more and more Italian regions went into lockdown. Calabria in the South did have very few cases though. 

Pollino National Park is supposed to be a real gem but I did not see much of it due to rain and fog. When I arrived at the sanctuary Madonna di Pollina it was just pouring down. I sought shelter underneath a little roof because everything was closed - even the toilets. Temperature was just 6 degrees and I didn't really like the idea to hike on but had no choice. First there was a steep descent, then the trail was not there were it was supposed to be according to me track. CAI had rerouted this section and luckily the trail marking was great. Back on track I had another endless ascent up the pass. I was soaking wet from outside and inside. I was really surprised that there was no snow up on the pass, the wind was icy!

I was so happy to find the descending trail and be back in forest. Because I didn't want to cool off I even had to skip lunch!

I had to descend 1,000 metres  and then walk more endless kilometers until finally reaching Morana Calabro where I had booked myself into a hotel. Roberto, the hotel owner was great: He called ahead for me to find out which restaurant was open now in low season. I even met a German couple there and had the first chat in my mother tongue for a long time. 
Roberto even drove me to laundromat in the next town so that I could wash my clothes. He had hiked the Camino in Spain and said: "We hikers must stick together!" I was the only hotel guest now in off season. And because I had not much seen of the National Park due to bad weather he even sent me a book about it to Germany!

Germany to Italy: Naples to Piaggine

View of Montesarchio
Because the weather did not improve but I was fed up with Naples and its trash problem I want back to Telese Terme where I had left the trail. As the name Terme suggests it is a spa town and I saw myself soaking in thermal baths again. Alas, everything was closed and I was stuck another day in a boring little town with not much to do but go shopping in the only supermarket. 

Things improved after that and even the sun came back. Two days later I was rewarded with this wonderful view of Montesarchio. When descending from the mountains on a great trail I came across the Grotta di San Simeone, a cave in the middle of nowhere that was decorated with a 16th century painting of the saint. There is a fence now to prevent vandalism but during WW II this had been a hiding place for the locals. 

There is a long road walk across the valley but I found a wonderful "tavola calda" in Montesarchio where I could fortify myself for it.

I nearly missed the Santuario di Montevergine because it was so foggy and the building was so modern (and ugly) that I did not suspect it to be a monastery. But then a nun appeared out of the fog and told me about the place. 1,5 million pilgrims visit it every year - almost all of them by car despite this wonderful old trail!

I had big trouble finding a campsite that night: There were plenty of wonderful terraces more than suitable for camping but for whatever reason there were alarm shots every five minutes to scare the birds away! No way I would be able to sleep here. I had to hike far into the night to find a place out of earshot!

In the Regional Park Monti Picentini the Sentiero Italia follows the Fiume Sabato but the trail along its banks was completely eroded. No problem, I walked in the riverbed instead. But the amount of trash there was shocking. Between dozens of plastic sandals, shampoo bottles and bags I even found a computer keyboard. Not only had the river washed up all that trash, locals were also illegally dumping it into the park ...

Monte Polveraccio

I was now in an area where chestnuts are cultivated. This would be great places for camping but now in October farmers were harvesting them. A 1,100 meter straight ascent brought me up to Monte Polveraccio where it was so windy that I had problems taking pictures. I wonder how the Station of the Cross survived up here so exposed to the elements. Luckily I found a sheltered campsite on the descent. When I planned the next section I briefly considered taking the E1 again and realized just in time that it crossed the river Sele at a place where there is neither a bridge nor a ferry. No wonder nobody hikes the E1.

Monte Panormo
I stayed on the Sentiero Italia with lots of road walking and could not resist the temptation in Contursi Terme to get a hotel with a swimming pool! So much luxury for only 43 Euros - although the pool was not heated and pretty cold for my morning swim. 

The Sentiero goes up Monte Panormo on a wonderfully maintained old foot path. I slept under chestnut trees and discovered that there casks are quite spikey. The view from Monte Panorma was downright breathtaking but I started to worry how I would get down from this knife edge. It turned out not too difficult but I I was still happy to touch firm ground again.

That night I learnt that cows and horses don't sleep at night. Their bells kept me awake until the wee hours and several times they came very close visiting me. I had booked myself in a B&B at Piaggine but check in nearly failed because there was no cell phone reception in town and I had to call the owner (who did not speak English either). In the end all worked out and I was even able to buy some food in the local minimarket before the deluge started. All the restaurants in town were closed and I had to dine in my room with a tetrapack of red wine. 


Germany to Italy: Sora to Naples

I took the train from Sora to Montecassino because there are three attractions: the famous monastery high on top of the mountain (I took a bus to get up there ...), several WW II cemeteries and an old Roman amphitheater. I visited all three. But my highlight in town was an AYCE sushi place were I was feasting among hoards of school kids on the cheap lunch special.

I left town much later than planned because it was much more difficult to send my summer gear home. DHL was outrageously expensive and I had to queue at the post office to get a cheaper rate. Although Italy is in the EU I still had to fill out a long customs form for whatever reason. And then the train back to trail was full of screaming teenagers ... I was already exhausted when I was back on trail!

Lago di Matese

A last experiment on the E1 ended in scratches on legs and arms. I decided to follow the Sentiero Italia from now on - unfortunately in the rain. I sought refuge in an abandoned house which looked like the film set of a horror movie, even a bat came flying by. When I reached Lago di Matese I felt more like in Scotland than Italy. I was just having lunch in a playground when it started to bucket down again and I ended up waiting out the shower under a slide watching videos on my smartphone ... The weather forecast was a nightmare and I decided to wait out three days in nearby Naples where there are enough sites to keep my busy for several days.

I ended up staying four days in Naples. It had been an excellent decision to get off trail because it was bucketing down so much that even the metro had to be closed due to flooding ...

And what a coincidence: A German friend of mine was just visiting Naples so that we could have a reunion in Italy! But as much as I liked sightseeing in town I was itching to get back on trail. It was getting colder and colder and Corono numbers were rising in Italy. I started to worry if I was able to finish this hike as planned ...

Tuesday, 9 March 2021

Germany to Italy: L'Aquila to Sora

I took the "antique" train back to Antrodoco where the trail soon took me to a private property with "No entry"-signs - and several aggressively barking dogs. Right behind the fence was another trail marker so I was quite sure this is were I was supposed to go. Unfortunately the dogs thought otherwise. I used the old trick of picking up a rock which kind of worked here as well. The dogs kept a distance while I sneaked across grazing cows and climbed up the mountains. The dogs were too lazy to follow me uphill. The photo shows the view back down to the farm property that I had just crossed. 

These lovely two lakes are actually reservoirs and I had spent an entire day walking around them on a very steep slope with partly overgrown trail. The view compensated for a lot of effort. I filled up with water at dusk in this village which meant that I had to walk until sunset where I camped at a fenced in picnic area. I was even protected from the cows which never showed up ... 
I was now only 50 kilometers away from Rome as the crow flies but felt like in a completely different world. I did not even do a day trip or rest day in Rome in order not get out of the hiking flow! 
I was now on the Sentiero Italia in the Monti Simbruni. I even walked through an abandoned ski resort which I would have never expected so close to Rome!
When I passed a commercial camp ground I was so thirsty that I asked for water. The receptionist told me there was no tap water (which I found hard to believe in a campground) but gave me bottled water. I wanted to pay for it but she refused. I still don't know whether the water here was potable or not.

Next highlight was the Santurio della Santissima Trinita starring a very rare old depiction of the Holy Trinity as three identical persons. The old chapel is perched into a sheer cliff and looks totally unaccessible but a narrow path led me down there. Modern pilgrims come by car but even they have to walk 20 minutes from the nearest parking lot. 
Because the old chapel is way too small for the masses of pilgrims mass is held open air on a terrace with a breathtaking view over the valley. There were dozens of souvenir stalls selling everything from baby bibs to rosaries. I was all alone again on the wonderful old hiking trail descending down into the village.

As you can see on the photo the Monti Simbruini are truly spectacular - but there is very little water. Before ascending I had made the mistake to try to follow the E1 again ending up in an impossible bushwhack. I detoured back to the Sentiero Italia taking too little water and had to hike the whole day with only one liter - big mistake! When I had finally descended again and reached the first water fountain I guzzled down two liters!
Next to the fountain I met a French cyclist I had already seen in the morning. It is always nice to meet fellow travellers but she was not the smartest one. When I police car showed up she asked them were to camp. The answer: "Definitely not here! Go down at least 10 km, because the next village there is out of our jurisdiction." 
Unfortunately I made the mistake not to camp here either - not because of the police, I just wanted to get some more miles in. Therefore I walked down the road at sunset getting this fantastic view of the monastery which is not inhabited any more. 

Alas, no camp site could be found. Where I had intended to camp there were too many houses. I even had to backtrack on the road in the dark and was followed by a car. I was pretty scared, turned off my headlamp and disappeared into a trail that shortcut the road switchbacks. But instead of driving on the car stopped and the driver got out. I listened intently in the darkness and suddenly something came rolling down the hill. The motor started and the car dashed off. Several trash bags rolled in front of my feet. This had not been a stalker but some person illegally dumping trash. Luckily I had not camped here ... I eventually found a decent campsite though where it was impossible to dump trash on me. 

As you can see in the photo a big thunderstorm was threatening. I decided to stay low and road walked to the train station in Sora. As much as I dislike road walking here it gave me the chance to constantly snack on apple, pear and fig trees plus grapes! In case you were wondering: I didn't have to steal the fruit, there are a lot of abandoned orchards where you can help yourself.
Nights were getting colder now in September and I had had my warm winter equipment sent to me in Montecassino, my next rest stop. 

Germany to Italy: Norcia to L'Aquila

 Back in the Monti Sibilini I was overwhelmed by the vastness of the landscape. It all looked very serene - but when I reached a road and the rifugio there, it had been destroyed by the earthquake. The hut warden was now serving food in a container nearby. 

Camping that evening I hid in a forest well out of sight of the nearby farm. Nevertheless at dusk I heard people's voices nearby and two dogs sniffing out my tent - luckily not barking. When the voices came closer I finally summoned up my courage and looked out of my tent: A couple was standing just five meters away discussing something in English - not having discovered me yet.

All of a sudden the conversation stopped and the lady said: "I think there is a tent!" I immediately introduced myself and offered to leave - but no problem. The couple turned out to be from the Netherlands. They were about to buy the property and were now exploring all the nooks and crannies before signing the contract. "You can stay here as long as you want - and we won't tell the owner", they told me when leaving. Later that night I was only disturbed by a wild pig.
The next village, Accumoli, had been completely destroyed by the earthquake, people were still living in containers, even the village church was a container now. Next to the altar was a crucifix with a sign "our Golgatha" where rock pieces were exhibited: They were pieces from the destroyed village churches in the region, a very touching memorabilia.

When I tried to shortcut some kilometers I ended up on a road that had been destroyed as well - but unfortunately now there were two big constructions sites with several "No entry"-signs and lots of workers. Although I felt pretty bad walking right through it nobody said a word. On the contrary some workers chatted with me about my hike!

I tried to follow the E1 but ended up in an unpenetrable jungle of blackberries - the last hiker must have come through here years ago! I had no choice but to road walk around it. What really worried me was the fact that I would have to go through a very long tunnel, a potentially dangerous situation for me as a hiker. But to my great surprise the old road existed still next to the tunnel and was actually the new E1 route! But my luck did not last long: The E1 led me to another bushwhack were I cut my leg so badly that blood was running down my calf! The other choice was roadwalking again on a busy narrow road that sent me jumping into the ditch whenever a truck approached.

I realized that the E1 is definitely a work in progress and its route not reliable! I still made it to Antrodoco in one piece where I took the train to L'Aquila where I had booked a room in a monastery. Although the earthquake there had taken place more than ten (!) years ago the city centre has still not been rebuilt. What a shame for the Italian government. I had to take the bus to some suburban shopping centre to do all my shopping. 

Germany to Italy: Faenza to Norcia

Dry water trough
The bus ride back to the trail was like a roller coaster. The driver even had to back up several hundred meters because the road was so narrow and oncoming traffic could not pass. Although it was a lot cooler and breezier up in the mountains than in town water became an issue. The next I hiked a 2 kilometer detour to reach a water trough only to find it bone dry. With my tongue hanging out I barely made it to the next pass where a ristorante provided a water tap in the garden. It was meant for dogs but worked for hikers as well. I downed one liter in 30 seconds ...

But it got a lot cooler and very foggy the next night. I was now hiking in Foresti Cansentinesi, high up on the ridge and all of a sudden I felt more like German Black Forest in fall than Italy in summer. I had been in this area just months before on the Way of St. Francis so this time I hiked a slightly different route. Badia Prataglia, which had been deserted in February, was now bustling with tourists. 

Foresti Casentinesi
When I checked my maps during lunch break in the main plaza I discovered a spa town close to my route: Bagno Romana! When I could even score I cheap hotel room in town I decided that spending the evening in hot thermal water is a great idea! 
Other than in Germany Italian spas usually belong to a hotel or resort and are relatively small. Not all admit non-hotel guests, but in Bagno Romagna there were even three! It was wonderful to soak in the warm water and stroll through town in the evening. 
Next evening I camped above a forest road well hidden in the trees, but was woken up by loud snorting. Was a cow or a horse visiting me? When I peeked out of my tent I nearly bursted out laughing: A rather overweight jogger was passing my campsite on the forest road. 
I was now on the E1 that is paralleling a variant of the Way of St. Francis. I did not see many other hikers, but half a dozen of lost socks - no kidding. People strap them onto their backpack for drying and then loose them. 

Two days later the forecast was so bad that I decided on a huge detour to Pietralunga, which I had already visited on the Way of St. Francis. All other accommodation was fully booked and even the place in Pietralunga was more expensive than I wanted. It turned out to be worth it! Because the town is on the Way of St. Francis I met a German pilgrim in the hotel and we had dinner together. Check out time was 11 am next morning but when having breakfast and watching the rain outside the hotel owner told me that due to a cancellation I could stay in my room until the afternoon. He even brought me pasta for lunch from his own family meal! It was still drizzling when I left in the early evening. 
When I hiked back to the E1/Sentiero Italia on back roads and forest roads I got water from an outside tap near a house. Unfortunately a kitten took a liking in me and followed me playfully chasing flies and mosquitoes. I was worried if this tiny creature would find his way back home alone - and walked all the way back with it. I knocked on the door where it had started following me. I don't know what the owners thought of me but they took the kitten in again. 

It rained so hard the next day that my fingers were pruned just from holding my trekking poles! I found a great shelter next to a lonely church during lunch where I could even charge my phone but after that all luck left me. Because the weather was so miserable I wanted to book a hotel in Scheggia - but all my email inquiries were answered negative: everything was fully booked! To make things worse the sun was already going down and the route traversed a steep slope where finding a campsite was impossible. The more I climbed the scenery looked rather like Scotland than Italy in the fog. The full moon made it even eerier! When I discovered a shelter on the map a couple of kilometers away I deceided to give it a try. Very close to the shelter I checked my GPS - when I felt something cold and wet touching my legs from behind. I turned around and screamed like hell when I saw a huge white dog!
All of sudden a light went on nearby and I realized what had happened: This was not the Hound of Baskerville, but a sheepdog and the shelter was not a public rifugio but the shepherd's hut.

He came out of his hut wondering what the heck a hysterical German got to do here in the middle of the night. Of course he only spoke Italian but I understood as much that he offered me a place on the floor of his hut - between lots of empty wine bottles. When I politely declined and wanted to hike on, he insisted: "Lupi, lupi - wolves, wolves".
But other than chain smoking shepherds wolves don't snore, so I continued and pitched my tent a couple of hundred meters away. As soon as I had retired into my sleeping bag a car passed by at midnight! I don't know whether the driver even saw me or just couldn't be bothered to stops. After that no more visitors or wolves ...

It took me a while to dry everything out next morning and unfortunately my couscous bag had leaked. I ate a bit that day but had to throw away most of it later because it started moulding ...
After more water problems next highlight was the Eremo Serra Santa which offers an panoramic view over the valley. The little church is closed but the entrance area is now officially a trail shelter complete with a wood stove and benches. I just cooked my dinner inside here on my camp stove out of the wind.
I was now hiking in the Monti Sibilini which are bald mountains with lots of free range cows and horses - and surprisingly many working water troughs. But this time I was lacking something else: My powerbank was almost empty! I had just finished lunch when two mountain bikers approached and asked me in broken Italian about the E1. They turned out to be from Germany and offered me their own powerbank to recharge my phone while they were taking a break. I hiked on and returned their powerbank to them when they passed me an hour later. 

Visso was the first town on my route that had been destroyed by earthquakes four years ago. It still looked like one big construction site. The entire old town was fenced off as a danger zone. 
When I continued the next day to Norcia I used old gpx tracks which led me right through villages that were completely abandoned. In some places I had to crawl over rubble and could still see the broken furniture. The most touching scene was a house were the front had collapsed and I could look directly into the former bedroom: The bed was still intact and looked like the inhabitants had just left for the day ....

I think the CAI has changed the route of the trail by now but it was very touching to hike through these ghost towns ... Sometimes I was a bit worried that a ruin could collapse on me, some houses were just held upright by makeshift wooden planks!

In Norcia I was the only passenger on the bus to Spoleto where I had booked myself into an old monastery. I had been here in February but had not done much sightseeing. 
Spoleto is a very tourist-friendly town: Because it is built on a steep hillside there are escalators taking you up and down - for free!!! Only two nearos here ...

Monday, 8 March 2021

Germany to Italy: Pistoia to Faenza

Luckily I had arrived very early at the bus station because due to Corona only 50% of the seats were supposed to be occupied - but there were a lot more passengers waiting. But after long discussions Italian style everyone got on board. It took 1,5 hours to cover 30 km as the crow flies and I felt horribly seasick after plenty of taking over manouvers on the narrow and winding road. It started to rain as soon as I got of the bus and with thunderstorms lurking I took a lower alternate route. Good choice because the next day all summits were covered in thick fog.

I learnt a new Italian word: "frana" which means landslide. I had to do an iffy detour to get around one but could rejoin my route via old abandonded roads that let me progress quickly. I am now on the Grande Escursione Appenninica which felt a bit like the AT: a long green tunnel! (with little water!)
I was lucky to reach a refuge where I could get water out of a cistern and a lovely chat with the hut warden who told me about this crazy Corona year: first no tourists and then too many!
On Passo de la Futa the popular Via degli Dei joined the GEA for a couple of kilometers and I was amazed how many hikers were out there! 
There even was a hiker box! Beside lots of band-aids and Ibuprofen I could score some snacks. There were so many noisy hikers piling up at the only spring that I fled from all the noise. But as soon as the Via degli Dei took another turn, I was all alone on the GEA again.

War cemetery 
Passo de la Futa is the location of Italy's biggest war cemetery. More than 30,000 German soldiers are buried here. Often they could be identified. When I wandered through the endless rows of graves reading the simple name plates of wondered what fates were behind it. 

I took the train to Faenza, ceramics capital of Italy where new shoes were waiting for me. I had ordered them from Amazon, and in Italy you can have them delivered to one of their partner stores, in my case a newspaper agent. 

Although I had a lovely AirBnB where I could even use the washing machine there was no AC or even a fan in my room. It was so unbearably hot that sleeping was difficult. But around the corner was a great pizza place next to an ice cream parlor - perfect combination! And of course I visited the huge ceramic museum in town. 

Germany to Italy: Genoa to Pistoia

I took the narrow gauge train back to the mountains with eight days of food in my backpack. I quickly realized that I would not be able to make 30+ km in terrain like this: constant ups and downs plus my heavy backpack were a big problem. Also water was far scarce - good campsites as well. 

When I turned around a corner in a area full of meadows, out of the blue I was attacked by six huge white dogs, so-called Maremmanos. They were protecting a herd of goats. As long as I kept a distance they left me alone. I had no choice but to wait until their herd had moved -which took a long time. Apparantly the grass here was especially juicy. Two kilometers later a sign said that the trail is closed due to free roaming sheep dogs ... There had been no sign on the other side where I was coming from.

At the next mountain pass I bought an ice cream at the bar to calm my nerves after this exciting encounter. Rather unexpectedly for me these bars sold snacks and ice cream and usually have a water tap as well making life a lot easier for me. At Passo Due Santi there was a mountain hotel and this being a Sunday plenty of people were checking out. As my powerbank was running low I went the other way and sat down in the hotel lobby to charge my phone. Nobody bothered me. At Passo de la Cissa my route crossed the pilgrimage trail Via Francigena and for a couple of kilometers there were plenty of hikers. 

But when the pilgrimage trail left, so did the water! All water sources on my map were dry or non existant! When the last spring before a long ridgewalk was dry because farmers had diverted the water into plastic tubes to feed the troughs on their meadows I had no choice but to descend several hundred meters, get water and then climb up again. And then all I could find was a camp spot on lumpy grass. At least I was rewarded with a golden sunrise next morning. 

In the Appenin National Park the route follows the narrow ridge and requires some climbing at places. Nothing too difficult but suffering from a bit of vertigo I had a hard time. And then two horses grazing on top of the ridge did not move an inch when I approached. Pushing, yelling, caressing - nothing worked. I could only sneak past them when some day hikers approached from the other side. Because I was much slower than expected I was very low on food and happy to get a two course lunch at Rifugio Prato di Spilla where busloads of tourists were out and about.

I was surprised to see so many day hikers in some places until I realized that there ski lifts were working! When I descended into Abetone literally dozens of gasping hikers were climbing up the steep hill and every other one asked me: "Is it still far?"

I had hiked the entire day on a last package of peanuts and had no food whatsoever left when I reached Abetone. There were only two small mini markets but I was happy to eat whatever they offered. But first I checked bus schedules because I was going to Pistoia for two rest days. I patiently waited half an hour for the bus to arrive and was then told that I could not buy a ticket from the driver! But he had mercy on me and waited till I had bought one from a souvenir shop across the street. Important lesson for travellers in Italy: Tickets can not be obtained from the driver, you have to buy them in tobacco shops or even bars! I was lucky again with my accommodation in Pistoia: I could relax in fantastic kind of boutique hotel right in the city centre. The owner even spoke English and gave me plenty of travel advice. And the ice cream parlor next door was heaven!